University entrance exam in Norway calls for naive cynicism about Israel

If you feel moved to protest this event, I would urge you to send a carefully crafted, objective essay of less than 250 words to the Norwegian directorate of education atpost (at) utdanningsdirektoratet (dot) no.

To fulfill university entrance requirements, all Norwegians are required to write two essays during an all-day nationally administered exam: one of no more than 250 words on a single topic, and a long-form essay on a topic chosen from a selection of four.

The mandatory, short-form essay this year was to present an analysis of the communication methods employed in two pieces.

One was Banksy grafitti on the separation barrier near Bethlehem:

Banksy graffiti, from Wikipedia Commons
Banksy graffiti, from Wikipedia Commons. Same image as the exam board used, though they did not attribute it to a source.

The other was an SMS message transmitted by Norwegian medical doctor Mads Gilbert, who snuck into Gaza December 31, 2008, volunteered to help at the hospital and Shifa. Gilbert is a noted anti-Israeli activist in Norway. The SMS message was sent on January 3rd at 1:50 pm and read:

(Norwegian original, English version below)

De bombet sentrale grønnsaksmarkedet i gaza by for to timer siden. 80 skadde 20 drept.
Alt kom hit til Shifa. Hades!
Vi vasser i død, blod og amputater.
Masse barn. gravid kvinne.
Jeg har aldri opplevd noe så fryktelig. Nå hører vi tanks.
Fortell videre, send videre, rop det videre alt GJØR NOE! GJØR MER
Vi lever i historieboka nå, alle!
Mads G.
03.01.09 – 13:50 – Gaza, Palestina

They bombed the central produce market in Gaza City two hours ago. 80 injured 20 killed.
Everything came here to Shifa. Hades!
We wade in death, blood, and amputated limbs.
Lots of children. Pregnant woman.
I have never experienced anything as terrible. Now we hear tanks.
Tell others, send to others, shout it to others everything DO SOMETHING! DO MORE
We live in the history books now, everyone!
Mads G.
January 3rd, 2009 – Gaza, Palestine

The sensationalist – and as it turned out – often misleading – reporting from the war led to some of the worst riots in Oslo in recent years, with incidents of anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence.

The graffiti also included the following caption, provided by the exam board:

Denne graffitien er måla på muren som israelske styresmakter har bygd på Vestbreidda. Muren er åtte meter høg og omringar mellom anna byen Betlehem.

This graffiti is painted on the wall that Israeli authorities have built on the West Bank. The wall is eight meters tall and surrounds, among other places, the city of the Bethlehem. 

There were other factual errors: The exam also claimed that Mads Gilbert was working in Gaza when the “armed conflict” broke out, when he in fact entered several days after  Operation Cast Lead started.

Any ambitious student would quickly understand that the exam called for an analysis of the use of similes and imagery in Gilbert’s SMS, and the use of contrast in imagery in Banksy’s grafitti, all in the service of communicating (at a minimum) injustice and suffering among Palestinians at the hands of Israel; or even as devices to cast Israelis as evildoers.

The grading guidelines for the short essay have not been published (or leaked) yet, but it seems doubtful that the board is open for a challenge to the premises of the assignment itself, for the simple reason that the assignment description perpetuates both Gilbert and Banksy’s propaganda.

If the board’s purpose was to have students compare and contrast different media (e.g., grafitti and SMS) employed for the same cause, they could not have chosen a more contentious issue, and they had an abundance of others to choose from.

The board also undermined their own credibility on the subject matter they were examining by propagating falsehoods of their own making about the separation barrier and Gilbert’s entry to Gaza; and inaccuracies from Gilbert (which could have been a result of the fog of war) without clarification.

For obvious reasons, the exam board chooses assignments in secrecy. In the next few days, we hopefully will learn more about its standard operating procedures, accountability, and grading guidelines. No doubt they will plead innocence to accusations of harboring a political agenda: the assignment called for an analysis and not a position.

But the problem remains that the assignment put students with knowledge of the history of Gaza and situation in the West Bank in an impossible position: a good answer would reject the very premises for the assignment but would probably lead to a failing grade. A safe and good grade would require accepting the demonization of Israel.

This is the irony: critical thinkers with requisite knowledge and intellectual integrity were put at a disadvantage.

It is not hard to imagine the reaction if the board had used examples from the Israeli right and asked for the same analysis. If nothing else, this should have given the board pause in choosing the assignment.


About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area